Piece of the Week – Olympian Sketches

Olympian Sketches, for clarinet quartet (four clarinets), originated in a request from the inspirational clarinettist, teacher and conductor Angela Fussell, for whom I wrote a number of saxophone and clarinet pieces and who was also the teacher of my son Sam, now a professional saxophonist.

It was written in 1993 for a group of her students at the Royal College of Music Junior Department, to give these young aspiring professionals something to get their teeth into, and they gave the first performance at the International Clarinet Congress in Ghent, Belgium, that summer. It was subsequently performed and recorded by the Chinook Clarinet Quartet, and by several other groups.

Mount Olympus was the mythical dwelling place of the Greek gods and goddesses, and I chose five of these immortals as subject material for musical portraits. I love writing for the clarinet – it is such a colourful and flexible instrument, with a very wide pitch range, and the ability to create the tiniest pianissimo to a piercing scream, and for this this piece (with the exception of two movements where one Bb instrument is replaced by the higher Eb clarinet) I wrote for three Bb clarinets and one bass clarinet.

The first movement depicts Apollo, the god of music and of poetry, and features interweaving melodic lines alternating broken chords and scale passages. The equality of the three Bb instruments enables the ideas to cross over and seamlessly mingle with each other, whereas the bass clarinet remains slightly apart, moving more slowly through its range, binding the whole together. The general mood is of peaceful expressiveness.

There is a big change of mood for the second movement, which portrays Charon, the mysterious and malevolent ferryman of the underworld. Two clarinets oscillate in rhythmic unison, but a diminished fifth apart (the traditional ‘devil’s interval’) suggesting the rocking of the boat, while the bass clarinet takes up the same intervallic pattern in a low staccato figure. Periodically the high Eb clarinet breaks the relative silence with loud screaming passages, again based on the diminished fifth pattern – the effect is frightening and unsettling and I felt that the rocks above the underground lake were closing in, in a claustrophobic manner. By contrast, the third movement, Hermes, the messenger of the gods, is fairly lightweight as he speeds from place to place with little trumpet-like fanfares and short melodic ideas thrown from instrument to instrument.

I wrote these first three movements at home in Colchester, then it was time for an Easter holiday in south-eastern France where I completed the piece, in between sight-seeing, Easter-Egg hunts, and games of table-tennis with our young family. I don’t think at the time I detected any change of approach in these final movements due to the change of scenery or language, but looking at the pieces again now I think I must have been thinking of Messiaen in the fourth movement, and Poulenc in the fifth!

The fourth movement is Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty – a gift to such expressive instruments as the clarinets, and the sinuous and freely rhythmic melody is based on the alternating tone and semitone modes of which Messiaen was so fond. And finally Artemis, the goddess of hunting, is welcomed with horn-calls and bouncing rhythms.

None of the movements are long – the whole piece lasts about 10 minutes – and it’s been enjoyable for me to revisit it after more than twenty years, and I hope you enjoy it too. There is a recording on YouTube here.

I subsequently made a version for saxophone quartet as well, for the Essex-based group Saxology. Neither version is currently published, but I’d be very happy to send copies to any clarinet or saxophone quartet interested.

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